- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The cynical adage about Vietnam is being played out in Iraq - pull out the troops and call it a victory.

That is certainly one way to look at President Bush’s decision, announced Tuesday, to pull 8,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Ironically, both presidential nominees - Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama - will come out of Mr. Bush’s new plan looking good at the president’s expense.

For it was Mr. McCain, the senator from Arizona, who insisted correctly from the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, starting in March 2003, that there were far too few U.S. troops in the country to secure it and subdue the Sunni Muslim insurgency there.

For years, Mr. McCain took that insurgency far more seriously than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Mr. Rumsfeld’s top lieutenants who were running the Pentagon, or their cheering section in the U.S. media.

By withdrawing the troops and switching them to the parallel war against extreme Islamists in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush also is admitting that Mr. Obama, the senator from Illinois, is right as well.

Mr. Obama has pledged to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq within 16 months of becoming president and to boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to win the war there.

Of course, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. McCain wants a full pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the 8,000 troop cutback is a small figure, given the 146,000 soldiers the United States currently has in the country. It will represent a troop cut of just over 5.5 percent.

But the very fact of the withdrawal announcement is momentous, for it has started a process and set a precedent for more withdrawals in the coming months. This is politically and strategically essential for any U.S. administration for many reasons.

First, it has to be done because the same Iraqi government that the Bush administration so painstakingly created insists upon it.

On July 7, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded a full U.S. withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq by a set deadline. His insistence took the Bush administration totally by surprise. If Mr. Bush’s successor does not comply with that demand, he risks a head-on clash with Mr. Maliki and the Iraqi security forces, more than half a million strong, that are dominated by Shi’ite militias. The U.S. military position in Iraq could rapidly become unsustainable.

Second, it is simply impossible for the United States to retain 15 to 16 combat brigades simultaneously in Iraq for the indefinite future.

The volunteer armed forces simply aren’t large enough to stand the strain. As many retired generals have warned repeatedly over the past two or three years, the unanticipated five-years-long commitment to Iraq has broken the back of the volunteer Army Reserve/National Guard system.

It also pulls the teeth out of any credible argument that the U.S. Army and Marines Corp. can be deployed in large numbers rapidly to deal with other problems around the world.

Bob Woodward’s new book, “The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008,” documents clearly that top generals led by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker recognized these problems and warned of them in November 2006, but the White House wasn’t listening.

Switching U.S. ground forces from Iraq to Afghanistan isn’t guaranteed to bring success there, either.

The history of Afghanistan has been a story of ferocious opposition to any foreign invader who tries to stay or set up a central government that will do what it wants, as the old British Empire and the Soviet Union both found out to their cost.

Here, ironically, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama are on the same page and may be making the same mistake in assuming that just building up troops in a country without a credible central government and with deep tribal and regional divisions can work.

There is no question that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus’ surge policy has worked tactically in the short term and bought the United States and its embattled president some breathing room. But there is no evidence it has done more than that.

While violence in Baghdad is running now at around a fifth of pre-surge levels, there is every likelihood that sectarian civil war will explode again once U.S. forces are withdrawn.

And the same Maliki government that the U.S. government created warmly hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a state visit. If Mr. Maliki’s government survives and prospers after the U.S. troop withdrawal, expect Iran’s influence in Iraq to grow by leaps and bounds.

Mr. Bush’s withdrawal decision is, therefore, a late, grudging and small concession to a series of unpleasant realities he has refused to admit for too long. It certainly is not a fundamental reassessment of U.S. policy in Iraq, though it makes such a reassessment inevitable.

As with his belated but radical move to turn the two mortgage-lending giants of the United States virtually into public utilities, Mr. Bush will leave his successor to try to make sense of the chaotic policies he leaves behind him.

Russell Totten, Renee Corley and John Hendel contributed to this article.

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